Daniel L. Feldman

Can Americans Handle the Truth? (Part II)

In National Politics, New York State Government, New York State Politics, Policy on September 6, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Sometimes it appears that every New Yorker feels aggrieved at the “unfair” benefit someone else has. The homeowner decries the rent-stabilized tenant, who gets such a great deal on his beautiful apartment. The tenant notes the mortgage interest deduction on federal taxes that the homeowner takes for granted, but puts tens of thousands of dollars in his pocket. The elderly citizen may resent high property taxes that pay for someone else’s children to go to school.

FICA takes a big bite out of the young parent’s paycheck to provide Social Security payments that she doubts will be around for her when she gets old. “Keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare or Medicaid,” they said, in fear of “Obama-care,” incredibly forgetting that Medicare and Medicaid come from government hands. The pensions of government employees are the latest bête noir; how soon we forget the firefighters and police who risked or lost their lives or health at the burning buildings at Ground Zero.

Of course there are abuses by some; and recessions, as has recently been noted, follow peaks in inequality driven by the greedy few in this country whose share of the national product is hundreds or thousands of times that of those who work for them. But overall, we tend to lay the blame for our ills on large categories of our fellow citizens who are no more guilty than we are, while we zealously guard the benefits we ourselves enjoy, mostly without acknowledging even to ourselves that we are lucky to have them.

This reflects the same instinct that has us re-elect legislators who bring construction projects or other forms of largesse to our neighborhoods, while decrying the spendthrift ways of Albany or Washington.  The “hypocritical” politicians simply reflect their voters when they call for budget cuts while grabbing all the “pork” they can. The gridlock and dysfunction in Albany and Washington, to a great extent, reflect the incompatible tasks we assign our representatives there. We simply want it all. 

The founders of our nation wanted to “promote the general welfare.” Even before the Constitution, foundational documents like the Mayflower Compact reflected their authors’ pledge to pursue “the General good of the Colony.” Selfish ends were commonly subordinated to the common good, to be achieved through the public sphere.

But today we treat the public sphere as Garrett Hardin portrayed herdsmen in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”: each herdsman calculates that an additional sheep will gain him its full price, while its effect on overgrazing the pasture (the “commons”) will be borne by all the herdsmen, so his cost will only be his proportionate fraction. Therefore, he should keep adding sheep. Of course, since each herdsman calculates the same way, the commons will soon be destroyed for everyone.

As we face this electoral season, consider that it is long past time for us to outgrow the childish notion that untrammeled selfishness and greed benefits our society, or indeed is even tolerable. We must start with our selves: let’s try to support candidates who will not necessarily appeal to our personal short-term interests, but to the common interests of our society.  Let them, and us, commit ourselves to “promote the general welfare.”


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